(This story was published on 21 June 2022 and is being republished ahead of the elections to the office of the President of India to be held on 18 July 2022.)
Opposition parties have decided to field former Union Minister and ex-BJP leader Yashwant Sinha as their joint candidate for the upcoming presidential elections. The announcement was made by senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh after a meeting of Opposition parties at the Parliament Annexe on Tuesday 21 June.
Earlier in the day, Sinha resigned as member of the Trinamool Congress and said that he must "step aside from party work" to work for the "larger national cause" of "greater Opposition unity".
This article will try and answer two questions:
What are Yashwant Sinha's chances?
What does Sinha's selection tell us about the Opposition?
What Are Yashwant Sinha's Chances?
Purely from the point of view of giving the BJP a fight in the presidential election, Yashwant Sinha is not a bad candidate.
The Congress has been clever in backing Sinha, who will be seen more as a former BJP and former TMC leader rather than a Congress nominee.
Anyone from the Congress might have pushed anti-Congress parties like the BJD and YSRCP towards the NDA camp. Sinha's candidature at least gives the Opposition an outside chance.
Judging by the parties involved in the negotiations that led to his candidature, Sinha is likely to get the support of the entire Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, the Trinamool Congress, Left Parties and other anti-BJP parties like the RJD, Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Lok Dal, Janata Dal (Secular) etc.
There is still uncertainty around the Shiv Sena, given the current turmoil in the party.
But even if one sets aside the Sena for now, Sinha may have enough to do better than the previous Opposition candidate - Congress leader Meira Kumar - who got 34 percent votes in 2017.
However, a lot would depend on parties that haven't opened their cards as yet - Biju Janata Dal, YSRCP, Telangana Rashtra Samithi, Aam Aadmi Party, Telugu Desam Party, and Bahujan Samaj Party.
Being a former cabinet colleague of Naveen Patnaik in Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government, Sinha would no doubt have an equation with the BJD supremo.
But then, if the BJP picks former Jharkhand governor Draupadi Murmu, a tribal leader from Odisha, Patnaik may be put in a spot.
Similarly, if the BJP picks current vice-president M Venkaiah Naidu, it may put pressure on the Andhra parties - YSRCP and TDP.
On the other hand, Sinha would also try and play the Bihari pride card and woo Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) to break ranks with the NDA in the presidential election.
What works in Sinha's favour is his seniority, having being finance minister and external affairs minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government and finance minister in the Chandra Shekhar government.
Any leader the BJP chooses from within its ranks, except probably Venkaiah Naidu, would be unable to match Sinha in terms of stature or seniority.
Having said that, the numbers are still tilted in the NDA's favour, though its support is still less than 50 percent. And unless fence-sitting parties and JD-U support him, Sinha may end up losing.
However, what his candidature would do is push the BJP top brass into choosing a non-polarising candidate from within its ranks. Anyone with a hardline image could push allies and neutral parties towards Sinha.
What Does Sinha's Candidature Tell Us About the Opposition?
The manner in which the Opposition arrived at a consensus around Sinha's name is interesting and shows that the UPA and other anti-BJP parties like the TMC, SP, RJD, and Left can set aside their differences and work together if necessary.
Those who were witness to the negotiations say that neither did the Congress try to play big brother nor did parties like the TMC display "unnecessary hostility" towards the Congress.
Many were surprised by the ease with which parties could arrive at a consensus. It seems all the parties involved were quite clear on the need to come to an agreement and put forward a strong challenge to the BJP.
Ideology vs Pragmatism
Sinha's candidature, however, opens up Opposition parties to criticism that they have "compromised on secularism" or are "playing on the BJP's field".
After quitting the IAS in 1984, Yashwant Sinha joined the Janata Party and was subsequently part of the Janata Dal and Chandra Shekhar's Samajwadi Janata Party (Rashtriya). However, he had an over three-decade stint with the BJP despite the Babri Masjid demolition and the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation.
He was minister of finance in the Vajpayee government when the 2002 Gujarat pogrom took place and he isn't known to have taken a critical position on the matter.
Vajpayee had publicly told then CM Narendra Modi to "observe his Raj Dharma". Sinha's cabinet colleague, Jaswant Singh, is known to have been critical of the violence as well. In 2006, he called the Gujarat riots a "blot" which "sullied the BJP's name".
Sinha, on the other hand, continued to defend Modi till as late as 2014, when he said that "Modi is right not to apologise for the Gujarat riots".
Therefore, critics say that while Jaswant Singh was a genuine moderate voice in the BJP whose criticism of Modi was based on principles, Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie fell out with Modi only because he refused to accommodate them.
The other side of Yashwant Sinha's selection is that it may reflect a realisation on the part of the Opposition that the only way it can defeat the BJP is by winning over disgruntled BJP supporters.
The ideological dilution also may be seen as an effort to occupy a broad centrist space that can accommodate even a former BJP leader.
It may also be the Opposition's way of sending an olive branch towards "moderate BJP" voters who prefer a "Vajpayee style of leadership".